"It's a funny thing," mused Gary Busey in his husky Oklahoma drawl. "Just three years ago I lost a chance to play Buddy Holly in a movie. Now I'm wondering if I'll ever get another role as good."
Busey has been receiving wide-spread justified praise for his title role as the rock 'n' roll star in "The Buddy Holly Story," which arrives in Washington today. The 34-year-old actor-musician, who has performed for many years as a rock drummer and guitarist under the pseudonym Teddy Jack Eddy, arrived in town a day earlier to promote the movie.
He remembered how the sudden cancellation of an earlier Holly project had eventually made it possible for him to embody one of his culture heroes and enhance his acting reputation in one satisfying, star making stroke.
"Twentieth Century-Fox started a picture about Buddy called "Not Fade Away." Busey recalled. "It wasn't really "the Buddy Holly story." It was about his first tour, I think they took the attitude that the dead had no rights, and since they weren't dealing with his marriage, they pretty much ignored Maria Elena, his widow. She's also his executor, and she worked real close with us. She's quite a lady, a strong, strong lady.
"They'd only been married about six months when Buddy's plane went down. She was pregnant and miscarried the very same day she got the news. Heard it over the radio as a matter of fact and collapsed on the spot. She's remarried and has two kids.
"Anyway, the studio shut down 'Not Fade Away' after about three weeks of shooting. Just aborted it. I was playing Buddy's drummer. The casting director had been real high on me for the role of Buddy, but the producer said, 'Busey's too fat to play Holly." I used to weigh over 200 pounds. I cut down to about 160 when our movie started. I wasn't about to risk another rejection for that reason. "When I finally finished playing Buddy in our film, it was like hitting a stone wall after traveling 400 miles and hour. I'd worked without a break for 11 months straight. I was a junkie in 'Straight Time,' then a crazy masochist surfer in 'Big Wednesday', then Buddy. One right after the other. I built myself up for 'Big Wednesday,' then reduced as quick as I could do make the weight for Buddy. I had to lose all that bulk and muscular definition more or less overnight.
"It's impossible the pressure started to get to me. People tell me I acted a little obsessed during the shooting. I knew I seem out of the ordinary. I was really into the other roles too.
"Once I put on those big horn-rimmed glasses of Buddy's, I couldn't take them off until we'd finished shooting, but that kind of thing doesn't seem obsessive when you're acting. I know I could have taken every emotion at least two notches higher if I'd let myself, but that's not what we wanted, and I think the performance is better because of that restraint.
"I was really keyed up during my last scene for 'Straight Time,' where the character is supposed to panic. Between takes I'd still be in a turmoil, find myself starting to cry uncontrollably. Dustin Hoffman and Harry Dean Stanton told me almost the same thing. "You've got something good there," they said. 'Now you don't wanna lost it, but it's gonna be even better if you sit on it, get on top of it."
Busey, born in Baytown, Tex. but raised for the most part in Tulsa, Okla., participated in high school the-articals and switched his college major to drama after a knee injury at Oklahoma State ended his football aspirations. However, he began to study acting seriously only about 10 years ago, when he decided to move to California, where he had frequently toured as the drummer with a rock band called The Rubber Band and then Carp.
After a year and a half as a student of James Best, an actor-teacher currently appearing in "Hooper" as Burt Reynolds' crony, Busey got his first professional job in a segment of "High Chaparral." He made his film debut in a Roger Corman biker melodrama, "Angels Hard as They Come."
His first notable movie role was in "The Last American Hero" as Jeff Bridges' brother. The film's director, Lamont Johnson, also cast Busey in a key role in a prestige television movie. "The Execution of Private Slovik." Television viewers may also recall Busey as the client in John Badham's admirable TV feature. "The Law" and as Jack Elam's son in the short-lived series "The Texas Wheelers."
Short-lived or not, "The Texas Wheelers" cost Busey a promised role in Robert Altman's "Nashville," According to Busey, "It had never been settled who I was going to play. At one time it was the Keith Carradine part. Then later Bob was thinking of me for the assassin. Still later it was the husband in the trio. Bob's one of my real favorites, so I was all enthused, busy writin' songs and everything.
"When the 'Wheeler's pilot came up, I was gonna turn it down, because I didn't want be stuck in a series when 'Nashville' was ready to go. Someone kindly pointed out that no more than 2 percent of the pilots ever made are picked up by the networks.
"I figured the odds were too good to pass up an acting job. The 'Wheelers' pilot ended up getting sold the day before Altman was set to decide on his casting, so there I was." (Busey may have dropped out of "nashville," but he still made a key contribution to it: the song "Since You've Gone," a wonderful and dramatically curical number left inexplicably off the sound track album.)
Busey's first musical instrument was "a beat-up four-string guitar" acquired at the age of 9 or 10. At the uring of his parents he took clarinet lessons at school. "I could never get the dang thing to work right," he says. In time he was allowed to discard the clarinet and turn to drums, which suited him immediately. He concentrated on drumming for several years before being persuaded by Willie Nelson to experiment with a little public guitar playing too.
Busey's fellow actor-musicians in the film are Don Stroud on drums and Charles Martin Smith on bass. According to Busey, each spent a month listening to Holly taopes and memorizing their parts before beginning to rehearse together. Stroud had played congas but never touched traps before auditioing for the film. Smith had played piano and guitar form the age of 10 but had to teach himself the bass. All the musical numbers in the film were shot live in the sequence following the completion of the dramatic scenes. Four cameras were turning during each number, and Busey recalls that they averaged about three takes a number.
"Now and then we felt so hot we couldn't stop," he said. "The director had to have what he needed, because we wouldn't have stopped playing for anything in the world. The crew could have split for lunch, but if we had something good going, we kept on playing."
Busey remembers staying with Holly's parents as the most satisfying part of his preparation for the role. "At first I felt terrible," he said, "like the most total stranger who ever lived. But they accepted me so completely that in a while I thought I belonged in their home. It was as if I was so close to Buddy as they were. When I visited his grave, I saw myself in his grave. It got a little spooky.
"Buddy's mamma said she used to tell him that his songs had to tell a story. She didn't believe you could get by with these little phrases that kept repeating themselves. Her favorite song was "The Isle of Capri," Buddy told her to stop thinking of his staff as ballads, since they were more like nursery rhymes, just silly little things that came into your head.
"A while later, she came up with one. 'Maybe baby,' and thought he might be able to do something with it. Yeah, he did a little something with it."